Esophageal Spasm

Jul 13, 2010

Ok, after doing some brief research and trying to understand what Dr. Mann was saying yesterday. It appears that I have Esophageal Spasms; go F*ckn figure!!!  Now how I got it I'm not sure, but i recall it started with me drinking diet lemonade. I found an article that pretty much explain this. I guess I'm the Official guinea pig (however you spell it). Enjoy the reading!!

Esophageal spasm is a condition characterized by irregular, uncoordinated, and sometimes powerful contractions of the esophagus, the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach. These contractions should be present but well coordinated, moving the food through the esophagus and into the stomach. It is easy to understand that they are very important because they can prevent food from reaching the stomach, leaving it stuck in the esophagus.
Esophageal spasms are a very rare condition.

The problem is that symptoms which may suggest an esophageal spasm are often the result of some other condition such as:

•    gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD)
•    achalasia- problem with the nervous system in which the lower esophageal sphincter (LES) doesn't work properly
•    anxiety or panic attacks

The cause of esophageal spasm is unknown. Many doctors believe it results from a disruption of the nerve activity that coordinates the swallowing action of the esophagus.

Types of esophageal spasms

Generally speaking, esophageal spasm can be subdivided into 2 distinct entities:

1.    Diffuse esophageal spasm (DES), in which contractions are uncoordinated. Several segments of the esophagus contract simultaneously, preventing the propagation of the food.

2.    Nutcracker esophagus, in which contractions proceed in a coordinated manner, but the amplitude is excessive.

The most common symptoms

•    Chest pain - Most people with this condition have chest pain that may spread outward to the arms, back, neck, or jaw. This pain can feel similar to a heart attack
•    Difficulty or inability to swallow food or liquid
•    Pain when swallowing
•    The feeling that food is caught in the center of the chest
•    A burning sensation in the chest (heartburn)

Possible causes of esophageal spasms

Although the etiology of esophageal spasm is unknown, there are several possible scenarios:

•    Increased release of acetylcholine appears to be a factor, but the triggering event is not known.
•    Gastric reflux or a primary nerve or motor disorder.
•    Micro-vascular compression of the vagus nerve in the brainstem has been demonstrated in recent researches as the possible triggering event.

Esophagus physiology 

The esophagus is comprised of 2 layers of muscle, the inner circular and the outer longitudinal layers. The esophagus can be divided into 3 zones, each with separate anatomy and physiology.

•    Upper zone
Made entirely of striated muscle, this zone initiates the contractions that propel the food down the esophagus. The upper esophageal sphincter is located in the upper zone. It prevents food from returning the same way up.
•    Middle zone
Middle zone is made of striated and smooth muscles. It is made of the inner circular muscle layer and the outer longitudinal muscle layer which work in conjunction to propel the food.
•    Lower zone
The lower segment is the lower esophageal sphincter. This circular muscle is a thickening of the smooth muscle that is contracted to prevent reflux. The pressure in the LES should normally be 15-25 mm Hg.

Esophageal muscles

Upper esophageal sphincter

When functioning properly, the esophagus can detect the presence of food at the upper esophageal sphincter. It coordinates progression of the food down the esophagus to the stomach.  Evaluation of the upper esophageal sphincter reveals constant spiking activity. When a person starts swallowing the food, the tonic contraction of the UES is inhibited, opening the UES in order to allow passage of food. To propel the food, the longitudinal muscles must contract, which is followed immediately by the contraction of the circular muscles. That’s how the initial wave starts, propelling the food down to the middle zone.

Esophageal middle zone

The middle zone of the esophagus propels the food from the upper zone to the lower zone. This segment consists of 2 muscle layers, an inner circular and outer longitudinal layer.

There is only one but very important difference - in the middle zone, the striated muscle transitions to smooth, or involuntary, muscle. If the muscle contraction of this part of esophagus is not orderly, the food bolus cannot progress.

There are two forces that propel the food:

•    First, gravity pulls the food caudally.
•    Second, the organized contractions of the muscles propel the food caudally. 

Lower esophageal sphincter

The lower zone is comprised of the lower esophageal sphincter. This is a condensation of the smooth muscles. This muscle is contracted and must relax to allow food to pass. Failure of the LES to relax and allow a food bolus to pass is termed achalasia.

Diagnosis of esophageal spasms

Physical examination and patient’s history

Doctor can often determine the cause of esophageal spasm by doing a physical exam and asking a patient a series of questions. These include questions about what foods or liquids trigger symptoms, where it feels like food gets stuck, other symptoms or conditions she or he may have, and whether a patient is taking medications for them.

Laboratory studies

Laboratory evaluation usually does not help in the diagnosis if patients' history and physical examination are unremarkable for other diseases mentioned in the differential diagnosis.
Blood sugar and hemoglobin A1C should be checked to rule out diabetes. However, patients can have esophageal spasm and diabetes concomitantly. The findings discovered by monitoring a patient's pH can demonstrate reflux, which can present with somewhat similar symptoms. 

Barium swallow test

It is important to point out that barium swallow is the best possible imaging study to help in the diagnosis of esophageal spasm. Barium swallow images show characteristic appearance of multiple simultaneous contractions. This is often referred to as a corkscrew appearance.

CT scan

The hypertrophy of the muscle wall is the cause of the increased thickness that is observed on CT scan images. The normal thickness of the esophagus is less than 3 mm and in cases of esophageal spasms it is much thicker.

Many other disease processes, including malignancy, can cause thickening of the esophagus that can be seen and that’s why it also helps to rule out some of these conditions.

Even in patients with symptoms of esophageal spasm, thickening seen on CT scan images should not be dismissed as muscular hypertrophy secondary to the esophageal spasms without further investigation. That’s why further analysis is necessary!


Manometry in patients with nutcracker esophagus demonstrates contractions that progress in an orderly manner, with an excessive amplitude. Amplitude greater than 2 standard deviations above the normal value is considered diagnostic for nutcracker esophagus.


It is a very good diagnostic tool to examine the condition and function of the esophagus. Tests measure acid levels in the esophagus as well as the strength and pattern of muscle contractions in the esophagus.

Treatment of esophageal spasms

Esophageal spasms are difficult to treat.


Medications that are being used commonly are:

•    Calcium channel blockers

These medications can reduce the amplitude of the contractions. In patients with nutcracker esophagus, calcium channel blockers effectively reduce the amplitude of the contractions, but the chest pain may not always be reduced. Traditionally, calcium channel blockers were thought to decrease the contractions.

•    Nitrates

They have also been used with some success. The mechanism of action is unknown but may be related to decreasing vasospasm in the brainstem, similar to calcium channel blockers.

Some patients have tried sublingual nitroglycerin for acute symptoms of esophageal spasm.

•    Tricyclic antidepressants

These medications, specifically imipramine, have been shown to decrease chest pain with no apparent cause on angiogram. 

Balloon dilatation

This method is commonly used to treat achalasia, but it has been used to treat esophageal spasms and nutcracker esophagus too. The problem is that the studies are limited, the relief is not uniform, and symptoms recur.

Surgical treatment

•    Myotomy

This operation relieves symptoms eliminating the effectiveness of the contractions by  cutting down some layers of muscles. Traditionally, a thoracotomy, the opening of the chest, was required to obtain access to the esophagus, but now, a thoracoscopic approach can be used. Myotomy is, although very radical, also very effective in treating esophageal spasms. The myotomy should extend to the entire length of the involved segment, which should be determined preoperatively with manometry. The problem is that myotomy usually reduces the amplitude of the contractions, but does not consistently improve symptoms, especially if the primary complaint is pain.

•    Anti-reflux procedure

Anti-reflux procedure should be performed concomitantly, by either a partial wrap or a floppy wrap.
Myotomy should be used with caution in patients with nutcracker esophagus because it may worsen the symptoms.

•    Esophagectomy

As a last possible option removal of the esophagus called esophagectomy can be used to relieve symptoms. The esophagus is usually removed completely, except the extreme upper part, and the stomach, small intestine, or colon is used to restore the continuity of the GI tract. Morbidity and mortality of esophagectomy are substantial. Therefore, it should be performed only after other treatments have been exhausted. It is a very complicated procedure that sometimes last for couple of hours.

Important notification about information and brand names used in this article!

Author's biography

SirGan is doing his specialization in neurosurgery at Portugal. He is interested in expertise for radiosurgery, as well as treatment of brain tumors, and currently he is studying interventional radiology. He gained significant operative experience that is done under the supervision and guidance of senior residents.


About Me
Norfolk, VA
Surgery Date
Dec 10, 2009
Member Since

Friends 38

Latest Blog 28